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Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle Can Offset Genetic Risks by 60%

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Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be enough to offset the effects of life-shortening genes, according to new research published in BMJ Evidence Based Medicine.

An unhealthy lifestyle, on the other hand, could result in a 78% higher risk of dying prematurely, regardless of genetic predisposition.

The first-of-its-kind study assessed the health data of 353,742 people from the UK Biobank to determine how their lifestyle habits and genes affected their health.

Nurture beats nature

After sifting through the UK Biobank and excluding participants who hadn’t provided any genetic data and those who had died from COVID-19 or accidental causes, the researchers from Zhejiang University School of Medicine in China and the University of Edinburgh were left with 353,742 participants of European heritage.

A polygenic risk score was derived for long (20% of participants), intermediate (60%) and short (20%) lifespan risks, using data from the LifeGen cohort study.

On the basis of 6 healthy lifestyle habits – no current smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, regular physical activity, healthy body shape, adequate sleep and a healthy diet – 23% of participants were considered favorable, 56% were classed as intermediate and 22% were considered unfavorable.

Over an average follow-up time of 12.86 years, 24,239 of the participants died.

After comparing the genetic profiles of these participants and others to their lifestyle classifications and risk scores, the researchers found that those who were genetically predisposed to a shorter lifespan were 21% more likely to die early than those genetically predisposed to a long life, regardless of their lifestyle.

Those who had an unfavorable lifestyle were 78% more likely to die before their time than those with a favorable lifestyle, irrespective of their genes.

Participants at high genetic risk of a shortened lifespan and who had an unfavorable lifestyle were twice as likely to die as those genetically predisposed to a long life and who had a favorable lifestyle.

Four factors in particular seemed to account for a healthier life: not smoking, regular physical activity, adequate nightly sleep and a healthy diet. 

Going for 5.5

Despite the study’s limitations – it was observational and didn’t prove cause and effect, participants were all of European ancestry, etc. – the researchers maintain that their results indicate that genetic risks for a shorter lifespan may be offset by a favorable lifestyle by around 62%.

“This study elucidates the pivotal role of a healthy lifestyle in mitigating the impact of genetic factors on lifespan reduction,” the researchers concluded.

According to the research group, those at high genetic risk of a shortened lifespan could extend their life expectancy by nearly 5.5 years at the age of 40 with a healthy lifestyle; given that lifestyle habits tend to be cemented by middle age, steps to mitigate genetic predisposition to a shortened life would be needed before then.

The researchers say communication strategies and public health initiatives could help spread awareness of their findings and promote healthier living.

“Public health policies for improving healthy lifestyles would serve as potent complements to conventional healthcare and mitigate the influence of genetic factors on human lifespan,” they write.

Reference: Bian Z, Wang L, Fan R, et al. Genetic predisposition, modifiable lifestyles, and their joint effects on human lifespan: evidence from multiple cohort studies. BMJ Eviden-bas Med. 2024. doi: 10.1136/bmjebm-2023-112583

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the British Medical Journal. Material has been edited for length and content.